President's Commentary: Ground Forces March to Cyber Battlefield

August 1, 2017
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

Possessing the ultimate weapon, the infantryman, the U.S. Army now is marching foursquare into cyberspace and electronic warfare operations. It is doing so not as a latecomer to the digital fight, but as one of the thought-leading pioneers in a rapidly expanding, cohesive domain.

The ground service, along with the other services, is integrating cyber, electronic warfare (EW) and other elements of information warfare into combat operations to more effectively assimilate information age technology. The effects of cyber and EW can move at the speed of light. They can enable or inhibit each other depending on how they are used, so it is only natural that these aspects of warfighting are tightly bound.

The end-to-end complexity of information technology and networks is finally beginning to be appreciated. Meanwhile, the realm of the radio-frequency spectrum is perhaps one of the more complex and least understood enablers of combat operations. Once cyber and EW are fully understood, unified and integrated, they will provide a welcome accompaniment to traditional kinetic effects.

Generally, cyber has not been thought of as a warfighting domain. But that is changing. While the Army still dominates the land domain, cyber and EW capabilities are quickly being developed as tools for land forces to engage adversaries and to assist in shaping the battlespace. They also can help influence an enemy’s thinking and psyche through deception, disinformation, psychological operations and many other capabilities.

The integrated use of cyber and EW activities in ground operations is not without precedence. Russian forces have employed and continued to rely on cyber-EW assets in Ukraine, using signals intelligence to locate targets and destroying or neutralizing their adversaries with massive artillery strikes. They jam and attack Ukrainian forces and networks to inhibit command and control. This has been a standard part of Russian military doctrine for decades, and U.S. forces must improve their own capabilities to operate more effectively in this environment. The Army’s emphasis on integrating cyber and EW is a significant step forward for U.S. and joint capabilities.

Personnel and hardware will continue to be the core of the service’s ground forces. Its arsenal of tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery and attack helicopters has dominated battlefields for decades. Yet, where new generations of hardware provide incremental improvements in Army capabilities, cyber has the potential to provide additional, exponential enhancements to support ground and joint operations. These enhancements can operate in concert with kinetic activities, or they can be stand-alone pursuits that achieve battlefield goals in their own way.

While cyber and EW may not traditionally be thought of as the tip of the spear for the Army, they can be an important set of capabilities that the force will employ in the future, and in some cases, they could be the “virtual” tip of the spear. They could be used to take down an adversary without destroying facilities, therefore avoiding civilian losses, the need to rebuild facilities or to fight over rubble created by kinetic destruction. Cyber and EW can be used to deny or defeat adversary offensive capabilities. Supporting an information operations campaign, they could redefine the perception of U.S. and enemy forces to the Army’s and the joint force’s advantage. Getting inside an enemy’s head has long been an effective tool for shaping the tide of a battle, and cyber-enabled capabilities are well-suited for that task.

Unfortunately, the information technology that has provided U.S. and allied forces much of its warfighting advantage in the past also exposes their Achilles’ heel. The force that has the most to gain from technological advantage has the most to lose if that advantage is denied or degraded. Our adversaries recognize this, and the Army has taken the right steps by consolidating digital capabilities such as cyber and EW under a single umbrella and integrating them into kinetic operations.

At the heart of achieving a battlefield cyber-EW advantage will be the training provided to small-unit leaders who may need to fight in a degraded cyber-electronic combat environment. These leaders will need to know how to operate within a complex electromagnetic spectrum environment that could be denied to various degrees. Technical, policy and cognitive aspects must be integrated with schema, maneuver and fires, and the Army is pushing forward in this direction.

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